THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN FICTION
Translated by Jean MacKenzie
(from Glas 33)
"Oh, God!" she sighed. "Oh, God!" and burst into tears.
"What's the matter? What is it, darling?" he said, tenderly stroking her hair and gently pressing her close, close to his beautiful body.
She didn't answer, she saw in his eyes that he understood perfectly well what was the matter. She continued her voluptuous weeping. Then she seized his hand and began kissing it.
He smiled and kissed her wet, shining eyes.
He soon drifted off to sleep, holding her close and responding in his sleep to her slightest movement. She was uncomfortable lying that way. She was no longer used to sleeping next to a man, her arm had gone numb, but she was afraid to move, afraid that she would scare away the miracle that had occurred. He breathed silently, and the pulse in his neck throbbed softly, but she already knew how frenzied this beautiful male body could be.
Her body was beautiful, too. She had always known that she had a beautiful body. Even when her former husband used to say that her legs were too short. But she knew that he said that to get back at her for his failure as a man. He also said she was not his type, that he liked long-legged redheads. She felt her hatred rise and was about to open her mouth to ask when he would finally gather his strength — his powerful male strength — and pound the nail into the wall, so that he could hang on it the precious gift that his loving mother had given them for a wedding present. How much she must have loved her son to give him for his wedding this amazing print, that must have cost all of three rubles!
She had even begun to utter this phrase, but caught herself in time, remembering that he would undoubtedly answer by talking about her father, who was so filled with love for his daughter that he called her all the time — at least once every two months. No, she was no longer as stupid as she had been in the first months of her marriage, she would not give her husband the chance to catch her out, tease her out from the depths of her private world, and tie her, like a goat to a peg, to some stupid phrase. Especially now, fifteen years after their divorce.
The sleeping man breathed quietly and in his sleep tenderly and firmly pressed her body, her beautiful body, close to his. Her very beautiful body.
...She was eating strawberries sprinkled with sugar, oozing a thick juice. The strawberries had the taste of happiness and freedom, because she had passed all of her eigth-grade exams with flying colors, and in three days she and her mother would be in the Crimia. And she would lie on the hot bronze sand, and her body, separated from the world by only her new red bathing suit, that they were so lucky to get at the Moskva department store, would absorb the red-hot currents of this ancient, dark part of the South, and would itself become the color of old bronze.
...And then she would enter the green sea and swim forever, chasing away schools of hook-nosed seahorses. When she reached the red buoy she would turn over on her back and lose track of the divide between sea and sky, between herself and all of this.
...Then her father came into the room and, looking in disgust at her adolescent knees poking out from under her short nightgown, asked why she had again hung her panties and bra in the bathroom where everyone could see them. Couldn't she find some other place to dry them? And she felt how disgusting her body was.
The sleeping man trembled and opened his eyes a bit. But she gathered all her will power and looked her father right in the eye in such a way that, muttering something unintelligible, he disappeared into thin air.
"Go back to sleep" she told the sleeping man, "Sleep". And carefully laying his head on her shoulder, began to rock him quietly. The sleeping man hugged her trustingly and, smacking his lips like a child, fell even deeper into sleep. She was suddenly seized by a desire to look at her legs. But she controlled herself and whispered again, "Sleep."
She herself could not fall asleep, because her mother came into the room, took her by the hand and led her into the kitchen. There, closing the door tightly after her, her mother nervously adjusted the white bow in her hair, and, looking around fearfully, asked in a loud whisper if she felt any pain in her lower abdomen. No, she answered in surprise, she didn't feel anything like that. You will soon, answered her mother. A lot of pain. An awful lot. And every month. That's the way it is, said her mother.
And then she screwed her courage up to ask where babies come from. "Sssh!" said her mother. "Your father will hear." And then she blushed furiously and explained hastily that a woman has a hmmm, well, in general, and a man has to tear it. And this hurts a lot. And the worst thing in a woman's life is the memory of her wedding night.
She laughed at her mother's words for it wasn't just the first — memories of the second and the twenty-second nights were not all that pleasant, either. She shook her head. Harder and harder. To shake out of it the thing that had already begun to spread through her body, threatening to mutilate it once again. No, she would not allow it. She would never again allow them — her father, her former husband, her mother — to paralyze her body's ability to become bronze, long-legged and happy.
The body of the sleeping man embraced her, giving off a dark, acrid heat. She tensed her nostrils and began to drink in this heat. She drank it in until she was filled with it, until there were no empty spaces left in her being where the past could creep in. Not the smallest hole.
And only then did she allow herself to fall asleep. She slept, trustingly throwing her head back in the darkness, protected by this dark male scent that wrapped softly around her — the smell of love, of happiness and security.
And in her dream the sleeping man came up to her once again and offered her a movie ticket. He smiled slyly, just like he had a few hours ago, and said what a shame it was that his friend had fallen ill. That was why he could give her a ticket. It would be just too bad if such pretty girls couldn't get into the movies. He had noticed them, he said, when they were still in line, and he knew right away that they would not be able to get tickets. He had bought his yesterday. For himself and for his friend. And then his friend had to go and get sick. So, if they wanted... But, unfortunately, there was only one ticket. Let the girls themselves decide which of them would go. And since in her dream she already knew what would happen, that it wasn't just a simple ticket, she behaved quite differently than she did in real life. She didn't bother to put on an act, to insist that her friend take the ticket, knowing full well that her friend would persuade her to accept it in the end. No, she didn't refuse, she just held out her hand and took the lucky ticket.
And then the cup of tea in her hand shook and fell slowly to the floor. And he laughed and said that it was good luck when dishes break, and that she had beautiful hands. And then she saw that her body was also beautiful. It was lying on a white sheet, and it was already naked and tanned. And she was that body, stretched out and trembling beneath his kisses, and at the same time she was in another corner of the room, in front of the mirror, watching in it what was happening behind her back.
But since the cup continued to fall slowly from her hands, she could not get a look at the faces of the two people in the mirror, one of whom was she herself. And she tried to get a good look at them, and the tension was a torment, sweet and growing. Then it became unbearable, and she understood that she would now, finally, experience something she had never been able to, not with her husband nor with other men.
And she became frightened. Frightened of her husband. Actually, she was afraid she would remember his pitiful face, so ashamed. And then she would ruin it, again. She ground her teeth and moaned. Loudly. Even more loudly. Tears streamed down her face, and through her tears she gave a mental push to the cup, falling all too slowly. The cup crashed down, hit the floor, and, freed from its overfull contents, smashed into a million shining sharp pieces that flew in different directions...
She lay, liberated, empty, happy, and she cried, burying her face in his shoulder, not answering his tender "what's the matter" because she could tell by his voice that he knew perfectly well what was the matter.
And then morning came. Sunday morning, and they drank tea in the sunny kitchen. And he laughed and told her how he had tricked his professor at a university exam. All he did was look him straight in the eye and begin to answer a different question than the one on the test card, the only question he knew the answer to. And he spoke in such an animated tone that the professor was taken in.
Then he said that she looked wonderful for thirty-five, and how nice it was that she had her own apartment. Then he got ready to leave, and, kissing her tenderly, said that she owed him fifty dollars. She laughed at his joke. But he continued to insist. She laughed even louder and kept laughing until she realized that it wasn't a joke. Then she told him he was a scoundrel. He smiled. She began to choke. He smiled even wider. She got fifty dollars out of the sideboard and gave it to him. He thanked her affectionately, and, scratching some numbers on a piece of paper, said that when she wanted to see him again she could call this number. She answered that she hated him.
She cried for an entire day, sitting in front of the mirror and tearing at her face. Then for a week she couldn't face anyone. Two months later she called him.